Fluoride to be added to UK drinking water to cut tooth decay, chief medical officers say

Chris Whitty said arguments against fluoridation have been "exaggerated and unevidenced". Credit: PA

Millions of people are set to have fluoride added to their drinking water after Britain's chief medical officers found that it would help reduce tooth decay.

Tooth decay is the biggest cause of hospitalisation for children aged five to nine and the experts said that fluoridation would halve admissions.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and his counterparts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, said adding more of the mineral to water supplies would cut cavities by 17% among children in the wealthiest households and 28% among the poorest.

They say it could also reduce hospital admissions for teeth extraction by between 45 and 68 per cent.

Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty. Credit: PA

"There is unquestionably an issue with tooth decay in the UK and an entrenched inequality which needs to be addressed. Fluoridation of water can reduce this common problem," the medical officers concluded in an evidence review published on Thursday.

"There is strong scientific evidence that water fluoridation is an effective public health intervention for reducing the prevalence of tooth decay and improving dental health equality across the UK," they told ministers.

Fluoride is naturally found in low levels in water and is known to protect teeth.

The chief medical officers emphasised that fluoridation is "not a substitute" for brushing teeth regularly. Credit: PA

Dismissing "exaggerated and unevidenced" claims about the mineral's supposed health risk, the chief medical officers stressed there was no evidence that fluoride caused cancer.

While fluoridation is common in many other developed countries - like Canada, New Zealand and South Korea - it is less so in England, with only 5.8 million people drinking water with added fluorine.

Local authorities decide whether to add fluoride to local water supplies, but there is often little incentive to establish fluoridation schemes as they are not responsible for dental health.

Ministers have drawn up plans for fluoridation, which will be open to a public consultation following the passing of any new laws.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid. Credit: PA

The health bill going before MPs will grant Health Secretary Sajid Javid the power to order fluoridation across the country.

Mr Javid said that Whitty's report "reinforces why our health and care bill will make it simpler to expand water fluoridation schemes".

The chief medical officers said levels must be “closely monitored” by drinking water inspectors, while noting that fluoridation is "not a substitute" for brushing teeth regularly.

Welcoming the statement from the UK's chief medical officers, Eddie Crouch, the British Dental Association chair, said: “Every dentist will thank the CMOs for recognising the lasting benefits water fluoridation could bring to the nation’s oral health. “However, these gains are purely theoretical without upfront investment. Spending here will pay for itself, and ministers need to show they are willing to seize the moment.

"We need a joined-up approach. Covid has left millions unable to access care, and deep inequalities are now set to widen.”